The Collaborative Impulse

God knows democracy has many flaws.  Deification of the Mass Man, distrust of high culture, envy of the leisured class, the celebration of materialism and consumerism, a rampant lust for standardization, regulation, and groupthink… one could go on and on listing the ways in which a democratic polity is constitutionally at odds with the idiosyncrasies and quirks of individual genius, especially if that genius manifests itself in the aesthetic realm.  All of these faults have been outlined by earlier writers from de Tocqueville to Ortega y Gasset to Le Bon to Lothrop Stoddard.

But there is one democratic tendency that is generally overlooked, perhaps because it is not as egregiously unpleasant as the ones mentioned above.  And that is the collaborative impulse.  This impulse lies behind a now almost universally accepted (and therefore unconscious) notion in our lemming-dominated society: You can’t do anything on your own.

It’s everywhere.  You come up with an idea, and people tell you that you’d better consult someone and take advice before carrying it out.  You plan an enterprise, and friends fall all over you with intrusive suggestions and help.  You decide something independently, and you are inundated with warnings and cautions and anxious little pleas for hesitation and second thoughts.

And this isn’t a one-way street.  Acquaintances call you up and ask you for advice on the most trivial and inconsequential things.  I never cease to be amazed at the asininity of their inquiries.  How in heck am I supposed to know what you should do on your upcoming blind date?  How can I judge the possible reaction of your boss to a transfer request?  How do I know what readers will think if you use a curse-word in a poem?  Why the swiving hell are you bothering me with these stupid questions?

You’re bothering me because you’re a slave to the collaborative impulse.  You’ve lost the capacity for independent thought and decision, and you’re frightened of taking the slightest step without the ratification of others, preferably by a majority vote.

Democracy is a poison—useful in small doses, but lethal in large ones.  When democracy becomes an internalized habit of thought rather than just an external method of government, the collaborative impulse takes over in the minds of millions.  If we all get to decide who becomes President on an equal basis, why shouldn’t that same equality allow us to comment on and help decide a whole range of other matters too?  Let everyone put his two cents in!

Modern society is largely composed of frightened little nerds in cubicles, consulting with the frightened little nerd in the adjacent cubicle over how to think and react and behave.  People are afraid to take a bloody step without consulting somebody else who will provide them with support and ratification.  So it becomes a kind of moral obligation to collaborate with one’s colleagues and neighbors on practically everything.  Doing things by yourself is anti-social and unfriendly.

This started in the 1960s with the New Left claptrap about “participatory democracy,” but it had its real success when the public at large was brainwashed to believe that everything was subject to discussion.  Now that sounds very free and open and liberating.  But the actual consequences were the opposite.  If there is a wide-ranging discussion of a subject, the natural inclination of most persons is to seek a consensus, which is usually then dictated by the loudest and most energetic partisans.  And once those partisans have imposed this consensus, they can then say “There’s been a free democratic decision!  No one can honestly dissent now!”  This is why liberals are so anxious to “open up a discussion” on topics.  The discussion is always a prelude to the silencing of the opposition.  And those who are silenced are psychologically disarmed, because they’ve been browbeaten into thinking that they “had their say in free and open debate.”

This is one of the reasons why I stopped attending faculty meetings.  The Deweyite scum would blather on, congratulating and supporting each other about their teaching methods, and would then blithely assume that because I found myself in the minority I would therefore change my mind and switch over to their pedagogical practice.  When I said that I didn’t give a swiving hump about how they taught, and would continue to teach in my own way, their jaws dropped.  Omigod, he refuses to be collaborative!

There doesn’t seem to be anyone left who fits the description of self-reliant independence given by Emily Dickinson:

On a Columnar Self—
How ample to rely
In Tumult—or Extremity—
How good the Certainty

That Lever cannot pry—
And Wedge cannot divide
Conviction—That Granitic Base—
Though None be on our Side—

(Johnson 789)

If poor Emily were alive and writing such sentiments today, she’d be diagnosed as an insufficiently socialized right-wing extremist, and sent to group therapy.

Collaboration is now a para-religion in modern society.  We are expected to “collaborate” with others at work.  We are expected to be “team players.”  We are expected to “run things by” a committee.  Undergraduates are frequently compelled by their professors to collaborate with each other in the classroom and on assignments.  And of course in poetry there are the silly workshops and discussion groups, where everyone submits his work for the collaborative perusal of others, who will “democratically” make sure that there isn’t anything in it that might offend the majoritarian consensus.

TV news broadcasts now regularly put a phone number up for you to call in your opinion on some controversial topic.  And millions of stupid people actually pay to call in and have their opinions recorded.  The results are solemnly tabulated by the network, and announced on the air with all the éclat of a pontifical proclamation.  What does the result tell you, other than that a certain number of airhead twits were self-important enough to report their opinions to an answering machine?  One person defended the practice to me, saying “I’m proud to give my opinion, and I’m honored that they want to hear it!”  I took pity on the poor guy, and didn’t tell him that the entire practice of soliciting call-in votes was a dopey publicity gimmick, and that the network’s interest in his opinion on any topic was next to nil.  He’d been infected with the collaborative impulse, and he probably wouldn’t understand.

This collaborative impulse sounds very nice and friendly and public-spirited.  It basks in the aura of its commitment to “democracy and diversity and openness.”  But in fact it is a recipe for the surreptitious imposition of uniform patterns of thought and behavior.  It doesn’t favor diversity at all, except by way of the pro forma bow that squelches real diversity by majority vote and consensus thinking.  If you truly value your freedom, tell the next person who wants you to “be collaborative” that you’d rather do things yourself.  And savor the look of shocked hurt on the idiot’s face.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.